China's Plan to Conquer the Moon, Mars and More

Every two years, there's a critical window to go to Mars. This summer, the planets aligned so that a spacecraft can get there with the least amount of fuel. NASA is sending its ninth spacecraft to the red planet's surface and other nations are trying to go too.

One is China, which is launching its first solo expedition. Aiming to send in one go, as much equipment as the U.S. did in several missions to potentially find evidence of past or present life.

[Kirsten Siebach, Martian Geologist, Rice University] That's a whole lot of steps at once. China will really have made a stand for their space agency and for their country.

[Mike Pence, Vice President, United States] We're in a space race today just as we were in the 1960s. And the stakes are even higher.

The U.S. and China are contenders for science, profit, and pride beyond the stratosphere. And China has made a lot of progress. Since 2018, it has sent more rockets than any other country and has become the second biggest spender in space programs behind the U.S. Here's what China is aiming for in space and how those plans can challenge the U.S.


[Namrata Goswami, Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis] In China, since you have a continuance of a Communist Party of China, its ability to focus on one mission spans 10 years.

Namrata Goswami analyzes space programs in China and the U.S. She says China's space program's greatest advantage is that once the single party government sets a longterm goal, plans are unlikely to change. For instance, China is scheduled to set up mankind's first permanent lunar base in 2036.

Experts say China envisions the moon becoming a sort of pit stop and gas station, charging other countries to refuel spacecrafts that need to reach farther destinations.

Meanwhile, NASA, Congress, and the wider space community have debated for decades, whether to refocus on the moon.

[Namrata] In the U.S. the problem is that you have a change in perspective, with the change in administration. Obama said that we do not need to go to the moon anymore. Suddenly you have Trump come in and he argues that no, we need to go back to the moon. It's the moon to Mars.

Well, the debate continues in the U.S., China is breaking new ground. It landed a robotic explorer on the moon's far side last year. Something no other country has ever done before.


[Lung Xiao, Planetary Geologist, China University of Geosciences] The first step is the moon. China want to make this step very solid. And to build our ability and to get good technology and that we can go farther.

Long Xiao says China's Chang'e 5 probe launch later this year could return lunar samples to earth and help advance research into turning them into rocket fuel.

[Namrata] The United States is still talking about getting somewhere first in space, showing off new technology.

[Mike Pence] The first woman, and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.

But the one advantage the U.S. may have is a number of collaborations between NASA and private space companies led by high profile billionaires. The space agency has signed billion dollar partnerships to do things like sending NASA astronauts and space tourists into orbit.

[President Trump] We have all these rich guys, they love rockets.

Space experts say the pooling of money and brains from various companies and universities is what makes the U.S. program so special.

As of today, the U.S. remains a model for China, which is actually learning from NASA's legacy and space. Still.

[Lung Xiao] The little one, just to learn from us that we want to contribute to our new knowledge to the human being. This is also, I think the some kind form of national pride.

In recent years, China has surpassed the West in areas like 5G and quantum encryption. Technology that experts say could accelerate China's space progress. But Xiao says China has had its fair share of failures. Almost a decade ago, the country's first orbiter to Mars had to hitch a ride off a Russian rocket and never made it there.

This summer, Tianzhou 1 will demonstrate technology that NASA is also rolling out for the first time, a radar mounted on top of the Rover to detect subsurface water.


But there's one big difference. While NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency to bring back the Martian soil and rock samples to earth in 2026, China is doing it solo, and it's not necessarily a choice.

NASA has never worked with China because of national security concern. The U.S. barred Chinese astronauts from entering the International Space Station and excluded China from being part of the Gateway, a moon orbiting space station.

[Long Xiao] There's not a good thing about the tension between China and the United States, but I understand it to share the technology is harder for any country.

So instead, China has planned its own Mars' sample return mission in 2028, not far from the NASA and ISA timeline.

[Namrata] The U.S. does not seem to realize that because it ban any kind of space collaboration between the U.S. and China, China develop its own indigenous capacity. So they turned a disadvantage into an advantage.

In the long term, some scientists from both the U.S. and China have said they hope cooperation will help share costs and expertise.

[Long Xiao] For science, we hope we can share scientific resource, exploration data, and that will allow scientists to work together.



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